Putting the heart into Bosnian arts and culture

Samra Koricic, a member of the secretariat at the Embassy of Bosnia and Herzegovina in London, writes on the renewed energy for the performing arts rippling through the country.

On 19 December we marked and celebrated the 60th anniversary of the signing of the European Convention on Culture: this date was the last of our major cultural events last year and – more importantly – it signalled the beginning of a new, invigorated period of cultural development both in Sarajevo and across Bosnia and Herzegovina more widely.

The tourist slogan for Bosnia and Herzegovina describes it as ‘a heart-shaped land’ with regard to its geographical form, but the country is also big-hearted in its outlook. As a nation we now demonstrate a strong commitment towards European and transatlantic communities, and recently a new international initiative has been put in place to help this process along.

At the 2014 conference on the Western Balkans, which took place at the Aspen Institute last November, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and his British colleague Philip Hammond, presented a new initiative for Bosnia’s European path. And, while facts about the war that split former Yugoslavia are well known, fewer people are aware of the rich arts and cultural offerings that are being created in Bosnia and Herzegovina – or, indeed, that this is actually a very culturally fascinating part of the world. Even through the war years of 1992-95, artists continued to perform their work and professionals continued to create theatre, film, music and dance. This wealth of talent in the country, along with a strong work ethic, has made for a powerful combination. 

The war in former Yugoslavia will be remembered for the unprecedented siege on Sarajevo, the longest in history, and the terror that left an indelible mark on all of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s citizens, particularly those personally affected by the atrocities. And yet the collective memory here also contains scenes that served as a ray of hope – such as in 1994 when the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta, performed Mozart’s Requiem in the ruined City Hall, or the moment Vedran Smailović, ‘the cellist of Sarajevo’, moved the world by playing Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor in the midst of the terror and devastation.

Throughout the war, cultural evenings still took place in Sarajevo as well as elsewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Theatre, music, and art in all its forms kept the individual spirit alive as we hoped for a better tomorrow. The past remains a very important part of our present, but 2014 signalled a real shift in progress for Bosnian artists: several big festival anniversaries marked the divide between a century of war and what we hope will be a century of peace.

European countries have had a strong influence on the cultural and historical life of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in 2014 a number of international projects marked the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of the First World War (in which, as a result of the
assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, the city played a major part).

This anniversary project was designed to carry universal messages of peace, reconciliation, understanding and multiculturalism at home and abroad. A major project called Sarajevo, Heart of Europe – which was made possible by our partners in France, Great Britain, Austria and Germany – gathered a large number of peace activists from around the world for a June fortnight of cultural events and discussions with a global approach. This included a special performance by Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio, an ensemble featuring 18 musicians from 10 countries speaking nine languages between them.

Perhaps the biggest landmark event of last year took place on 9 May, when the restored City Hall – which had previously been devastated by the bombings – was officially opened to the public with a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The City Hall
had been obliterated in the war and the library holdings that had been housed there were completely burned – now, two decades later, it once again shines in all its glory. We also marked the 30th anniversaries of the Sarajevo Winter Festival and the 1984 Winter Olympic Games. We were very pleased to welcome back the world famous skating duo Torvill and Dean, who came to pay tribute to the city where 30 years ago they had won a gold medal for their famous Bolero.

As they skated to Ravel’s score again, it was an emotional experience for the audience, for the city’s people, and evidently for the skaters themselves. A further notable cultural success of this past year was Sarajevo’s Night of Museums 2014, co-organised by the Association of Artists (BELLARTE) and ICOM.

This provided another opportunity for our citizens to be reminded of the importance of our nation’s cultural and historical heritage, as well as of the potential risks of neglecting our archives. On 17 May, a diverse range of artistic performances with a historical aspect took place across the city.

Other highlights of the 2014 calendar included the 20th Sarajevo Film Festival; Nights of Bascarsija; the International Folklore Festival; the 18th Sarajevo Jazz Fest; 20th Sarajevo Evenings of Music (SVEM 2014); 5th Ballet Fest Sarajevo; 54th MESS (for smaller, experimental theatres in Sarajevo); Sarajevo Chamber Music Festival 2014; and of course the Sarajevo, Heart of Europe concert on the Latin bridge.

Many of the above are now well-established festivals that attract large national and international audiences, as well as participants who travel from all over the world to be involved, contributing to an eclectic mosaic of arts productions that make the already highly multicultural Sarajevo feel more exciting with each year that passes.

In 2015, we expect all these festivals to return with even more enticing programmes.

The International Sarajevo Winter Festival runs until 7 March.